Sundin column: The worldwide decline of democracy
As I See It
Democracy burst upon the world in Ancient Greece near the beginning of the 5th Century, BCE and flourished, particularly in Athens, for more than 100 years. That “Golden Age” was characterized by an unprecedented flowering of architecture, sculpture, science, mathematics, drama, philosophy and literature. At about the same time, Rome also established a form of popular government, the Roman Republic. This was more an oligarchy than a democracy, and died in 27 BCE when Julius Caesar declared himself emperor.
It was more than 2,000 years before a truly popular government again appeared on the world stage. In the summer of 1787, 55 delegates from the American Colonies convened in Philadelphia to revise the 1777 Articles of Confederation. Instead they chose to create an entirely new Constitution to govern the new country. At that time, educated people were admirers of ancient Greece and Rome, and the delegates drew heavily on features of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic in drafting our Constitution.
The world’s growth of democratic government over the next 150 years was slow. A decade after World War I (in President Woodrow Wilson’s words, “The war to make the world safe for democracy”) there were only 20 democracies. That number dropped to 11 by 1938 as a side-effect of the Great Depression. The defectors that had the greatest effect on history were Germany, Italy, Russia and Spain.
Following World War II, nearly half of the countries in the world had become democracies or semi-democracies by 2004. But since then there has been a steady decline in the number of countries which can truly be called democracies. Why has this happened?
The decolonization of Africa by the European Powers (1945-1960) cast former colonies adrift with little if any preparation for independence. The fact that the Colonial Powers had divided Africa along arbitrary boundaries with no regard for ethnic or linguistic groups further complicated matters, causing a lack of political unity within the newly created countries. Combined with extensive illiteracy and limited communications, this made the former colonies easy targets for takeover by strong men who saw a ready opportunity for power and wealth. Even in South Africa democracy is now in decline, suffering from racism, corruption and a poor economy.
After the defeat of Japan in 1945 the people of the former European Colonies in Asia resisted the return of colonial rule and pressed for independence. The U.S. was torn between its support for self-determination and loyalty to its European Allies, and foolishly got drawn into the Vietnam War. Indonesia, although a victim of Muslim extremist terrorism, can now be considered to be a functioning democracy. India solved its Muslim-Hindu internal conflict by shedding predominantly Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh, and thanks to British influence, is now the world’s largest democracy.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 more than a dozen democracies were created in eastern Europe and western Asia. Only three, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania survive as democracies.
In the early 1800s a wave of revolution swept through South and Central America as one after another, the Spanish colonies won their independence. There have been many setbacks (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru), but today nearly all the South American countries (with the exception of Venezuela and Nicaragua) enjoy a reasonable level of democracy.
In the Muslim world, in which only one religion is tolerated and is all-encompassing, there is no democracy. The lone exception was Turkey, which Kemal Ataturk led into democracy in the1920s after its defeat in World War I. But that democracy has now disappeared under dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In Russia under Gorbachev and Yelsin and China under Hu Jintao, there were brief faint glimmerings of democracy, but they have been snuffed out by the repressive dictatorships of Putin and Xi Jinping. And in Europe, democracy now seems to be losing ground in Hungary and Poland.
Democracy is now in decline in over half of the world’s democracies, including the U.S. (the subject of next month’s column).
“As I See It” appears on the first Thursday of the month. Hal Sundin lives in Glenwood Springs and is a retired environmental and structural engineer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.